Chester Martin Remembers The Biggest Changes To Chattanooga

Thursday, April 21, 2016 - by Chester Martin

When I was a kid a verrry long time ago, Chattanooga was a much smaller city than today, being very restricted by both natural and political boundaries which kept us small. Downtown was early laid out very methodically - and very well - to accommodate both in-coming and out-going traffic. The roads and highways which led into town followed the paths of former wagon roads which meandered into town, swerving and curving to avoid perpetual mud-bogs or other obstacles that farm animals could not negotiate.

But when these wagon roads hit Chattanooga they immediately found a well-thought-out grid of paved city streets. We can still trace some of those old wagon roads today where they divert their paths from the city streets. One of these would be Old Ringgold Road, where it has followed the grid through town and east on Main Street; then, on the side of Missionary Ridge, it suddenly turns right - diagonally - where it winds its ancient path over to our modern Ringgold Road on the other side. Same principle holds true for the equally ancient Rossville Avenue which juts off of Main Street to connect with Rossville Boulevard. That street leads into the town of Rossville, Ga., oldest community in the area. It had a post office before Chattanooga!

But Chattanooga remained confined to the small space of my early years. Generations of Mayors and other City Fathers wrestled with the problem of how to make Chattanooga grow. I believe one of the first areas being eyed for annexation was a large, basically low area east of Missionary Ridge referred to simply, but descriptively, as "east of the Ridge". Our city was so desperate to claim it that a U.S. Senator from Chattanooga, Nathan L. Bachman, pushed legislation that would provide for the construction of the two tunnels which are still in constant use on Ringgold Road. (The East Ridge Tunnels). These tunnels were named in honor of the Senator's father, a Confederate veteran, and former pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Dr. Jonathan Bachman.  Opening these "Bachman Tubes" tunnels removed through-traffic from "Old" Ringgold Road, which then became a residential street. Only problem now was that the good people who lived out "east of the Ridge" did not want to be part of Chattanooga (!), so they incorporated and founded the  new City of East Ridge which remained a part of Hamilton County. Brainerd, to the north, however, only got ONE tunnel, but welcomed its annexation into the city of Chattanooga. (The second, north, tunnel came much later around 1950).

The city was hemmed in on the west by Marion County whose line follows the escarpment of Elder Mountain - and of course we could not extend south into Georgia. The Tennessee River was a natural boundary on the north, meaning that the little country towns to the north - such as Hixson - remained very rural until well into my lifetime. "Annexation" was a big word politically for much of my life and there were many referendums over it. "East" was the only direction the city could easily expand. But there were problems in that direction as well.

In about 1946 our good neighbor, Mr. Willian F. Jackson, returned from WW2. A steamfitter by trade, he was very happy at the prospect of working for the new DuPont plant which had recently opened north of the river. He easily got the job, but the commute was exhausting! He had to leave from his home in the Belvoir community of Brainerd, drive west into town, go north across the Walnut Street bridge, turn right, and follow Hixson Pike east for miles before reaching his new job at DuPont. He was not alone, of course, and the need for a new bridge was more than apparent. It took a long time to get all the legal work done before the bridge over Chickamauga Dam was actually built. But it finally opened and we could not function without it today.

For all of my younger life there had been only two bridges across the Tennessee River: the Walnut Street and Market Street bridges. These had served us well for many years, and were fine for the age of horse-drawn wagons, buggies, and even T-Model or A-Model cars. But modern cars were too large, especially for the Walnut Street Bridge. It had become structurally unsafe and the lanes were so narrow that it was downright scary to drive across it. (My car was actually one of the last cars to go across, just hours before it was shut down!)

Mayor Rudy Olgiati (whose family came from the Swiss colony of Gruetli-Laager, Tn.) had the vision for a brand new bridge which could connect the northern and southern portions of U.S. Highway 27. His bridge would fit in very nicely with the new efforts at city planning which were beginning to take shape. The Olgiati Bridge would create the possibility for a brand new focal point in town which was to be called the "Golden Gateway". North-south traffic on U.S. 27 could exit onto 9th Street, and the resulting influx of traffic needed to be provided for. Ninth Street (now MLK) had been no wider than 7th or 8th Street, so it would have to be widened. This was a painful process, requiring great amounts of time. Buildings were ripped away exposing ugly interior walls with ragged wallpaper and uneven brick walls still showing, that stood for years afterward without adornment.  But the overall intended flow of traffic worked as expected. This was the mid-1950's and early 1960's. The biggest "negative" to this project is that it is where we lost our beloved Cameron Hill! We were told that they were only taking a few feet of dirt from the top of the hill to use as fill-dirt along the new roadways, but it resulted in total mutilation of that beautiful and historic site.

Next, President Eisenhower, as General of the Army in WW2, had seen Germany during that war and had been impressed by the German system of "Autobahns". He thought America should have a system equally as good, so promoted the idea and quickly got Congressional approval. The program was to be called, "Project '66", indicating that the entire system would be completed by 1966 - and much of it was, but I was told that such a system could never work in the swamp lands of Louisiana, or other such places. I never heard what the outcome was in those places...

Artist George Little recorded on canvas some of the drama from that era in Chattanooga. Every way you turned your head you saw orange (rust primed) steel girders plus a lot of cement, and George Little painted it on canvas. The landscape was very "raw" in appearance here for a very long time. Also, there were detours a-plenty, and - if you could ever get on a stretch of one of the new roads - it led only a mile or two until you had to exit again! Probably about 1966 (on time!) the State and local dignitaries held a ceremony on the "Ridge Cut" officially, and at long last, uniting the eastern and western portions of I-24. The I-75 freeway was to the east and did not get the same amount of publicity as I-24.

This was a time of great change across the entire country, actually. Change can be painful - as it was for my parents who were advancing in age, who, along with hundreds of others had to relocate. But, all told, the change was for the good, and the freeways are indispensable today.

At some time in the 1950's or '60's Miller Brothers department store acquired the former Clemons Brothers furniture company property across Broad Street and built a tunnel between the two buildings which fouled all traffic on Broad Street for months on end.

And in my parents' day, one huge change to Chattanooga was surreptitiously undertaken by the City Fathers. Broad Street only ran from the Tennessee River to 9th Street (now MLK Boulevard). By pre-arrangement, and probably on a weekend night, a group of men tore down at least one of the blocking buildings at the south end of Broad Street, and ran an automobile through the vacated property. It could now be proclaimed a "street" - legally. Also, the two new viaducts on McCallie and Bailey Avenues served to create the new eastern suburbs of Highland Park and Brainerd. The former "East End Avenue" now became, "Central Avenue"!

But could you ever imagine Chattanooga without Broad Street?

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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